Alyson, a Cincinnati, Ohio, administrative assistant at a staffing agency, deals with nerve, muscle and joint pain from fibromyalgia and arthritis, as well as “a completely different kind of pain” from an autoimmune condition that affects her skin. She is immunocompromised, and says she contracted COVID-19 twice prior to getting vaccinated.

Working from home during the pandemic has given Alyson the freedom to be able to take care of herself throughout the day, preserved energy she would normally spend on her appearance and commute, and allowed her to take her medications at the correct time rather than putting them off until no one is around. She’s better at taking breaks now, “because there’s less pressure to be performing 100% all the time.”

But Alyson, who uses the pronouns she and they and asked not to be identified by their last name, already feels that their team — the only department still working primarily from home — is getting left behind at work, despite “kicking ass” on the productivity front in recent months.

Now her concern is that future prospective employers will question why she didn’t advance more at her current job, even though she has taken on new responsibilities outside her role.

“A lot of people are getting promotions — and most of them are in the office,” said Alyson, who is in their mid-20s. “It’s like even though you show up on time to your desk at your home and clock in, and you work all day and you’re doing a lot … if they can’t see you doing it in person, it’s not real somehow.”

While most U.S. workers are not currently working from home due to the pandemic, and the ability to telework has fallen unevenly along dimensions like education level and race, remote work has benefited employees who thrive outside the constraints of a physical office. 

But as many companies negotiate a hybrid “return to work” now that close to 60% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, researchers warn that disparities in who is best equipped to go back to the office could have unintended consequences down the line, potentially creating future inequities in career advancement.

Fortunately, there are steps that employers and workers — and, importantly, policymakers — can take to mitigate these potential harms.

The plus side of COVID’s ‘remote-work experiment’

Telework can be “transformational” for people for whom it’s a possibility, including many who gained access to it for the first time during the pandemic, said Kathryn Zickuhr, a labor-market policy analyst at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a left-leaning research and grantmaking nonprofit. 

Remote work can be an important accommodation for many people with disabilities, Zickuhr said. Along with access to benefits such as child care and paid leave, it can also enable workers with caregiving responsibilities to stay in their jobs without dropping to part-time work or leaving the workforce entirely. 

COVID-19’s ‘remote-work experiment’ should make it far more difficult for employers to deny requests for continuing remote-work arrangements for workers ‘who could most benefit from greater location flexibility.’

— Michelle Travis, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law

Reports and anecdotes also suggest that remote work has offered some people of color, people with disabilities and women a reprieve from in-person office microaggressions. (To be fair, plenty of workplace harassment has easily migrated online.) Flexible work arrangements have also decreased the need for Black knowledge workers to “code switch,” a Future Forum study found.

If nothing else, the pandemic that forced entire industries online has demonstrated that telework is not only achievable for many employers, it’s sometimes even preferable, said Rachael Langston, a senior staff attorney for Legal Aid at Work in San Francisco.

Also read: ‘I was told I could never work remotely’: Before coronavirus, workers with disabilities say they implored employers to allow them to work from home

Indeed, COVID-19’s “remote-work experiment” should make it far more difficult for employers to deny continuing work-from-home requests from those “who could most benefit from greater location flexibility,” such as working moms and people with disabilities, Michelle Travis, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, told MarketWatch in an email.

“Before the pandemic, courts frequently upheld legal challenges to employer demands for on-site office presence, despite the disparate impact that these policies have on women with significant caregiving responsibilities and some individuals with disabilities, among others,” Travis said.

“Courts readily accepted employers’ assertions that on-site presence was a business necessity driven by teamwork, productivity, and supervision demands, and that allowing employees to work from home would pose an undue hardship to the company.”

The pandemic, she added, has debunked those notions for many employers and industries — “which should make it easier for working moms or individuals with disabilities to pursue discrimination claims if employers refuse requests to continue to work remotely.”

‘Subtle forms of inequality’ could hurt some remote workers

With that said, those who continue working remotely after their coworkers return to the office could experience “subtle forms of inequality,” Travis said, such as being “incorrectly perceived as less committed to their careers.”

Then there’s the potential for “proximity bias,” which in a hybrid workplace “means that supervisors may be more likely to offer good work assignments, give positive reviews, and grant pay raises and promotions to the employees with whom they are in close contact in the office,” she said.

‘The big fear for me with choice is, what seems initially like a fantastically pro-employee decision to make turns out to have horrible unintended consequences.’

— Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University

Remote workers could also get fewer mentorship opportunities, miss out on informal meetings and conversations at work, and “have less access to and interaction with executives, which can also lead to fewer advancement opportunities,” Travis added.

In a 2014 study led by Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, employees at a travel agency in China who worked from home four days a week had better performance, improved work satisfaction and lower job attrition — but their promotion rate fell relative to their colleagues who worked in the office full-time.

And the people who want to keep working from home in a new hybrid-work world “won’t be random,” Bloom told MarketWatch. Among college graduates with young kids, women are far more likely than men to want to work from home five days a week, his research has shown.

Bloom has been sounding the alarm about letting employees pick their own work-from-home days, warning it could lead to what he foresees as a “diversity crisis” — or long-term disparities in career advancement that could arise if, say, women with young children work from home four days a week while single young men cement a full-time office presence and cozy up to the manager.

“The big fear for me with choice is, what seems initially like a fantastically pro-employee decision to make turns out to have horrible unintended consequences,” Bloom said. This could be a “legal time bomb” in the making, he adds.

How companies can avoid creating ‘second-class employees’

To be sure, “if people are still teleworking as a legally protected accommodation for a disability, pregnancy, childbirth-related condition or otherwise, treating them less favorably than their colleagues because of that telework would likely be a violation of state and/or federal anti-discrimination laws,” Langston said.

“Ideally, employers would be flexible where they can regarding telework and other aspects of work — because it certainly makes for more satisfied workers, more productive workers, and workers that want to stay with that employer for a while,” she added.

But to avoid the prospect of teleworkers in hybrid setups becoming “second-class employees,” companies should set up channels for regular communication with remote employees and formalize a mentoring program for all employees, Travis said. They should also adopt objective criteria for performance reviews, and ensure pay and promotion transparency.

Even the smartest, most thoughtful work-from-home arrangement must be paired with structural policy interventions like paid leave and child care.

— Alix Gould-Werth, director of family economic security policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth

Bloom, for his part, argues that managers should determine days on which everyone on their team works from home. This policy, he writes, “should apply to the CEO downwards” to avoid the potential for managers coming in on extra days. 

But Y-Vonne Hutchinson, the CEO and founder of the diversity and inclusion consulting firm ReadySet, questioned the “equity implications of requiring a physical presence to begin with.”

She urged employers to consider whether they actually need workers to be physically present, and why: Does the job require that, or is it more for employee surveillance and the bosses’ own comfort?

Even the ‘most thoughtful’ WFH policy may not be enough

The ability to continue teleworking will only impact a small share of workers overall, and “even for that small group of workers, it alone is not enough,” said Alix Gould-Werth, the director of family economic security policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. After all, she said, caregiving needs don’t vanish when someone is working from home.

In other words, even the smartest, most thoughtful work-from-home arrangement must be paired with structural policy interventions like paid leave and child care, she said — to support not only workers who can telework, but also workers who can’t.

Related: One in four female employees considering leaving or cutting hours amid COVID-19, extensive study finds

If someone can’t afford child care or lacks access to paid time off for their chemotherapy treatment, for example, “then remote work is really just dancing around the edges of the problem,” Gould-Werth said. 

“It’s doing nothing at all for the vast majority of workers in the labor force, and workers who indeed are most in need of interventions that will help them balance their dual roles as caregivers and workers in the paid labor market,” she said.

Companies must also acknowledge that many employees are returning to work wounded after living through a “dystopian nightmare,” Hutchinson said, pointing to the widespread trauma, loss of life, political instability, social unrest and scores of women, particularly women of color, who have exited the workforce during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, working mothers’ “double shift” of caregiving and housework has only grown more onerous during the pandemic, particularly for Black and Latina mothers, a McKinsey & Co. analysis in May found.

A physical-first workforce must account for the fact that circumstances remain far from normal, and many workers still have concerns such as child care, children’s COVID-19 exposure, and personal risk tolerance, Hutchinson said.

“We haven’t solved the underlying issues that created these harms — and when it comes to the most impacted groups, they have farther distance to travel to get back to ‘normal,’ if there’s ever a normal to get back to,” she added.

Workers have some leverage in a tight labor market

Workers who are feeling uneasy heading back to the office “should know that they are not alone,” Travis said — and that recognition should make them more comfortable airing concerns, asking about safety precautions, and getting clarity on new expectations and policies. She pointed to surveys showing an overwhelming share of current remote workers feel anxious about returning. 

‘Workers are in a stronger position than they have been in the past, and they should leverage that.’

— Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO and founder of the diversity and inclusion consulting firm ReadySet

Those who plan to continue working from home, meanwhile, should be proactive about regularly connecting with sponsors and mentors, Travis said. Even more important, they should establish with their employers clear performance expectations, as well as criteria for advancement and promotion — “objective performance measures” that can help mitigate potential bias.

If you don’t feel safe or comfortable returning to the office and you have the flexibility to look for a new job, remember that workers in many industries are in high demand in today’s tight labor market, and search for opportunities at one of the many companies that have embraced remote work, Hutchinson added.

See also: Do you feel unsafe going to work because of COVID-19? Here are your options

Almost four in 10 U.S. adults — and an even greater share of millennials and Gen Z respondents — say they would consider quitting if their company was inflexible about remote work, found a Morning Consult poll conducted for Bloomberg News in May.

“We’ve seen how that kind of collective action from workers, even if it’s not organized, can influence the labor market and influence what employers are asking from people,” Hutchinson said. “Workers are in a stronger position than they have been in the past, and they should leverage that.”

Alyson, the staffing-agency employee, has a plan for the event that her company wants her back in the office in short order: ask her boss if she can say no, make a doctor’s appointment, and contact human resources to begin the process of requesting a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

If HR resists, they added, “I’ll basically say, ‘Hey, I’m going to have to start looking for another job, and you guys are going to have to be OK with that.’ Which is frustrating — because I really do like my job, and I’m able to do it well.”

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